Photo by Tom Spitz

Photo by Tom Spitz


By Kim Constantinesco

We always hear about athletes “tuning out the noise” before a big competition, in order to keep their focus.

Swimmer Marcus Titus, 30, doesn’t have to flip that switch. The 12-time All-American from Tucson, AZ. has been deaf his entire life, and he considers that one his biggest advantages before entering the water.

“Not being able to hear is my best tool since I can focus on my race without any distractions,” Titus said. “I don’t have to hear what people are talking about. Shouts, yells, cheers, last minute instructions or acknowledgements are not overwhelming to me. The silence calms my nerves before I dive off the block. It’s my race to swim.”

His last race nearly turned into his first Olympic Games. Titus came up just shy of making the U.S. Olympic Swim Team after qualifying for the finals in the 100-meter breaststroke. In the final round of the trials, he placed sixth, only 1.2 seconds behind the winner.

“I knew I gave everything I had, and so I have no regrets about the outcome,” he said. “I was definitely ready to race. I knew I had trained as physically hard as I could. I was mentally in the zone; I had studied my competitors, and my confidence in myself was high.”

It was his third time trying to punch his ticket to the world’s biggest athletic stage. Even though he didn’t quite get there, he’s leading the charge for deaf swimmers everywhere, both as an athlete and as a coach.

Photo by Tom Spitz

Photo by Tom Spitz

A Push Into the Water

Born and raised in Arizona’s sauna-like climate, you might think that Titus was itching to get in the water. However, it was his parents who pushed him into the sport at 14 years old.

“My parents are really the people responsible for my swimming career. If they hadn’t forced me to try out for my high school swim team, I wouldn’t be here,” he said. “And if they hadn’t signed me up for the local aquatic club, my technique wouldn’t have improved. I don’t think I would have been able to get a swimming college scholarship or be on the US National Men’s team. They’re my number one fans and supporters. They were there for my swim meets. They were there getting me interpreters for my training sessions and meets.”

Because of the long practices and scant swimsuits, Titus didn’t like even swimming. But, he caught the racing bug in his first competition.

“I had made a surprising win with a great time, and that changed my life,” Titus said. “I really loved the confidence it gave me, to believe in myself, and to be good at something.”

He capped off his high school career with a state championship before swimming for the University of Arizona, where he majored in Deaf Studies and Special Education.

By his sophomore year, he took second place in two events at the NCAA championships. So, how does Titus know when to jump in the water while his competitors can hear the buzzer?

“I watch the officials do a series of hand signals so I know when to get on the block and when to take my mark,” he said. “Basically, the official will raise his hand straight up in the air, which means get on the block. Once everyone is on the block he will bring his arm down to a horizontal position, meaning take your mark. From that point, I look at the strobe light that is set up next to my block. I wait for the strobe to go off, then I take off. Fortunately, the strobe is at the block instead of at the side of the pool deck. Depending on the pool, they may set it up on the side. If that happens, I have to keep my head turned to the side of the pool to figure out when to dive. It can be awkward and uncomfortable at times, depending on my lane.”

By relying on his eyes, Titus has become an elite swimmer who is the world record holder in the 50-meter freestyle, 50-meter breaststroke, and the 100-meter breaststroke among swimmers who are deaf.

The Best Way to Learn is to Teach

Following the 2012 Olympic Trials, he took some time off from swimming to become the head coach for the U.S. team in the 2013 Deaflympics. And he became a better swimmer for it.

“Because I had to instruct other swimmers on how to improve their strokes, I became good at analyzing technique and identifying ways to improve it,” Titus said. “I then began to apply that to my own swimming. Secondly, by just watching the swimmers compete, having fun, and enjoying swimming, it made me realize that I had forgotten how to enjoy swimming. The team helped me remember how fortunate I am as a swimmer and how much fun it was to compete and be a part of something. They really inspired me to get back into the water.”

While Titus put his coaching career on hold, he still has intentions of making swimming more accessible and “equal” for those who are hearing-impaired.

“Many of the tools out there, whether for swimming laps with a timing pacer, or diving off the blocks for a meet start, are all based on sound. Obviously, we are at a disadvantage. My goal is to look into technology and develop tools for deaf swimmers and all swimmers to train with universally. Also, I hope to find a path where I can continue to coach and motivate deaf swimmers on the national level and international level.”

Photo by Tom Spitz

Photo by Tom Spitz

Sure as a Swimmer

With all the success that Titus has had in the water, and as a coach, he has been one that younger generations look to for inspiration and advice. And he’s a good one to give it.

Growing up, Titus felt like an “outsider,” particularly when making the transition to junior high.

“I felt like I was on the outside of social circles, looking in. I felt like my peers didn’t understand my hearing loss and didn’t want to take the time to accept who I was as a person,” he said. “It was lonely and frustrating at times, especially because when you are a teen, all you really want is to fit in and be accepted. I didn’t get jokes or conversations because I couldn’t hear them well, and no one wanted to repeat themselves. In order to survive, you just kind of have to develop a thick skin, learn to not take everything personally, and try to maintain your own level of outgoing-ness.”

His advice for others going through something similar? Be confident.

“You are your biggest critic. Instead of doubting or questioning yourself, be your biggest advocate,” Titus said. “Don’t be afraid to dream big or set your goals big. Be confident that you know what you want, and that you’re going to achieve that goal. One way or another you will be closer to success than where you were standing before.”

Great advice for anyone trying to get off their own starting block.